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Carroll school food service program surveys students on lunches

Trinka Palmer, right, and Debbie Siegman serve, from left, fifth-graders Jack Sloan, Nathan Gelsinger, Destiny Haney and special education assistant Joanne Bowen during lunch at William Winchester Elementary School in Westminster Thursday.
Trinka Palmer, right, and Debbie Siegman serve, from left, fifth-graders Jack Sloan, Nathan Gelsinger, Destiny Haney and special education assistant Joanne Bowen during lunch at William Winchester Elementary School in Westminster Thursday. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

Students quickly shuffled down the lunch line at William Winchester Elementary School Thursday, grabbing up their pick of four entrees and healthy side choices.

Many of those children chose options such as whole-grain pizza, tacos, salad, raw vegetable cups, cooked carrots, orange wedges, peaches and apples.

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Carroll County Public Schools' Food Service Program is asking students to fill out an

in an effort to gather ideas and opinions about such school lunch options. Students of all grade levels are encouraged to fill out the survey whether they buy or pack their lunch.

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The survey, which gives the opportunity to provide open-ended feedback, is open through Sunday. More than 1,700 responses have been gathered so far, according to Technology Integration Analyst Emily Nichipor.

Karen Sarno, supervisor of food services for the school system, said the objective is to see what can be done to encourage children to buy school lunch and grow the school's food service program.

Over the last few years, school lunches have experienced several changes. There is now a wider variety of lean proteins, fresh and local fruits and vegetables, and whole grains on the menu as a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

"Those federal regulations define nutritionally what we can offer students," she said.

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Starting in the 2012-13 school year, school lunches saw a price increase for elementary and middle school lunches, increasing those prices to $2.25 and $2.50, respectively. High schools also saw an increase in the price of their larger lunch option, with a new cost of $3 per lunch, and stopped serving two lunch sizes.

Carroll's program has seen improvement since the cost of running food service operations outpaced revenue by more than $1 million from Fiscal Year 2007 to Fiscal Year 2010, according to a report from the Office of Legislative Audits.

Despite an increase in breakfast and a la carte sales, school lunch sales are still a challenged area, and the food service program is still not yet breaking even, Sarno said.

"We still need to look at enticing more children to visit that line," she said. "We're moving closer to becoming self sustaining, but we're not there yet."

The goal is for the program to be self-sufficient and not require direct support from the school system's budget for operations and equipment purchases, Sarno said.

Part of the goal of the survey is to look at regular lunch buyers and ask what new items they would like to see in order to keep them interested and invested, Sarno said. For those who aren't purchasing lunch, she would like to find out what could be changed to encourage them to start doing so.

The survey asks participants to indicate their grade and what school they attend, so the gathered information can be site-specific. Parents of elementary students are encouraged to assist their child in completion of the survey, Sarno said.

The hope is that the survey spreads awareness and enthusiasm about the school lunch program, she said.

"The survey will hopefully point us to why is there a certain population that doesn't even give [school] lunch a try," Sarno said.

While there are nutritional restrictions, Sarno said she will work within those to provide students what they want to see in their lunches.

After the survey, focus groups will be established in select schools in an effort to gather more in-depth feedback, Sarno said.

"Overall, it will just be good to actually give the students the opportunity to know that they're being heard," she said.

William Winchester elementary fifth-grader Jack Sloan said he buys lunch at school every day. While he enjoys many of the options and likes when they offer apples, his favorite part of lunch is still buying ice cream.

He did have a suggestion when it comes to entrees.

"I'd probably like to have corn dogs," he said.

Trinka Palmer, cafeteria manager at William Winchester, said students buying lunch enjoy theme days and traditional meals such as pizza and chicken nuggets, but sometimes the children's preferences are surprising.

Palmer is hoping the survey feedback gives her some new lunch ideas that will excite the students.

"It is really hard to figure out exactly what they're going to prefer," she said. "We just try to have a wide variety of everything ready and available."

Students were at first skeptical of the variety of fruits and vegetables, but Palmer encourages students to at least try the options, she said. Many children have reported back to her that they discovered they liked the foods.

"That's always a good feeling," she said.

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